The Monster Inside:
A Conversation with Collective Director Alexander Nanau
By Eric Hynes
Films should always be difficult to describe in words. That may sound reductive, or avoidant of a challenging but necessary task, but it’s also just true: if it could be reduced to words, it wouldn’t need to be a film. But some films are more challenging than others, especially if the goal is to describe what a film does, achieves, and means, and not just what happens in it. This is often the case with great works of nonfiction, in which the facts of what is recounted or shown inevitably occupy all the space on the blurb. And it’s especially the case with Collective, the great new film directed by Alexander Nanau that might sound and even look simple and clear enough, but is actually, when you watch the thing—as so much failed and familiar language can attest—so much more.
The context for the film are the circumstances around a fire in the Bucharest club Colectiv in which 27 people died, and the mysterious 37 additional deaths in area hospitals during the ensuing weeks. Ineffective leadership and communication from these facilities and from government agencies led to widespread protests and then further mishandling and misinformation. Nanau documents resistance among survivors and their families, but also fixes on a group of journalists associated with the sports newspaper Gazeta Sporturilor, led by Cătălin Tolontan, who begin to find cracks in the official story perpetuated by the Ministry of Health. Collective witnesses the ensuing events as they unfold, arriving on the scene along with the film’s subjects and even venturing into spaces and conversations off-limits to the journalists. It’s an astonishing record of reportorial commitment and integrity, and a virtuosic expression of observational filmmaking. It is also a de facto dissection of corruption that’s perhaps unmatched in cinema, and arrives during a time when governmental and societal malfeasance has erupted around the globe. While remaining minutely attentive to the circumstances unfolding in Romania, Nanau’s film somehow exposes roots that we’re unearthing half a world away.
I sat down with Nanau in September 2019 at the Toronto Film Fesitval, not long after the film’s world premiere in Venice and yet more than a year before its theatrical premiere here in the U.S. Among the many losses felt by cinema culture because of the COVID-19 shutdowns, I count the lack of public presentations of Collective as being among the most significant. But great art endures, even beyond a moment it can ideally serve, and Collective certainly will. The following conversation, originally conducted for publication in Film Comment, explores the director’s ambitions and revelations, and in particular his methodology for creating such a singular film.
Collective is now available to stream at Museum of the Moving Image's Virtual Cinema, courtesy of Magnolia Pictures.
Reverse Shot: Your film successfully places reporters at the center of the narrative, which I think is rare in documentary films. In other films it can come across as an awkward conceit, such that neither the real-time revelations nor the “this person is really compelling” characterization really resonate. How did you pull off aligning your film with the reportorial investigation, and how did you know that’s how you needed to make the film?
Alexander Nanau: I always collaborate on my films. And my way of working is that I’ve developed my own observational style. I follow things as a way of showing you something about society. At the time Romania had these huge demonstrations. For two weeks there was a mix of generations in the streets protesting because of the fire and the lack of precautionary measures. There was this national trauma. We knew there was corruption in Romania, but nobody until that point realized that the corruption was killing. It forced the government to step down, and then they put in a governmental specialist for one year. I wanted to try to capture [those who were] sick, and I also wanted to follow something that could tell us about what was happening in society. So my cowriter and I were researching, and saw that Cătălin Tolontan had started to investigate the role of the authorities in the fire, and also the hospitals. And he found some irregularities there. He was a prominent journalist, known for his investigations, and we thought maybe that's the way to see how society functions, to see how the press functions in this relationship between power and citizens. We went to him without a lot of hope because he was known for being very rigid.
RS: You assumed he wouldn’t want to collaborate with you.
AN: That he would never let a camera into his newsroom. I told him what I would like to do, and that if he had an investigation coming up that we would like to follow it. And he said no, it's not going to work, we have to protect our newsroom. But then when he met my team, and saw how much knowledge we had, that we researched deeply, he [reconsidered it]. So I told him the way I work is that I will follow you for one year, or six months, or for four months, and I would not release any footage during that time.
RS: That you weren’t looking to scoop him, subvert his process, or put his journalists in danger—that your timeline for this footage was longer than the timeline for his stories.
AN: And in that way he started to trust me. So I said, listen, if something comes up, a news development, and you feel okay about it, just give me a call—I‘m two blocks away. So one day he calls me and says, “I have something coming up, but I can't tell you what.” I said okay, let’s try it. It was a bit awkward for them in the beginning. But it was important for me to learn about their process, how they dig into the information. What’s his first question? How does he meet whistleblowers? And my approach is to just be around, and I managed to make them relax. We just shot observational, I never say like, stop, wait a minute, what did that mean? We never set something up. I’m sure it's annoying to have somebody following you, but they got it, and they trusted me.
RS: Did you film continuously when you were there, or more strategically, picking spots?
AN: There were interruptions. Right after we started, the whole investigation erupted in this vortex of disclosures and corruption and suddenly we were all together. But there were days where he maybe didn’t want to show that he wasn’t succeeding at something, and we would say, oh, I think we won't get anything today—maybe it's better if we stopped filming. So we stopped, we went out for coffee. But then in half an hour we'd be back and then [oftentimes] the thing would start to happen.
RS: Did your being present as they were doing their jobs cause any complications, or conversely assist either’s investigatory mission?
AN: For the press conferences we would enter separately so that people didn’t think we were following or filming them. I think that in observational documentary filmmaking [the relationship] is just like a love relationship. It requires this mutual trust. And you learn from each other. So it wasn't so much that my presence helped him. On the contrary he couldn't be this incognito journalist playing dumb and getting information all the time. But there was this trust between us, and our really trusting what they're doing maybe gave them a bit of confidence, such as when the ministers were saying it’s fake news.
RS: Did you talk about your work with him, and vice versa? You were on such parallel tracks throughout this.
AN: I never talk too much. I try not to consummate the relationship off camera. Since I also shoot myself, I would never engage in long discussions or reflections on things. Because I need this tension between the character and me, of not really knowing what I’m looking for. Out of this tension comes the relationship that we consummate through the camera lens. You know, I would never talk to him like, “We understand now what you mean, so let's film it again now.” No, I don’t do interviews, I try to be there and be this hidden man behind the camera.
RS: Why is that tension so important for you?
AN: Because tension is the thing that transports emotions, thoughts, everything. And I think without tension you don't really have a story to tell.
RS: How many of you were present?
AN: Most of the time, just me. Sometimes I had a sound recordist, but I prefer to be alone with the recorder in my backpack. Sometimes I would put mics on them, but I don’t want to disturb their intimacy or make them feel pressure. I would just try to put a good recorder in places, and I have a boom in the camera. Over time, if they seemed less disturbed by having a microphone, I would put one on them.
RS: The sort of thing where at first they feel like it’s invasive, but it winds up being much less invasive.
AN: You just put it on them in the morning and they forget about it.
RS: When you had a sound person present how did that change the dynamic?
AN: The good part is that the sound person, Mihai Grecea, was a close collaborator, and also he was the one filming the fire in the club. He was a friend of the band. He was there to film the concert. And he nearly died in the fire. After he woke up from his coma I encountered him by chance—he was just telling his story to somebody else. I said, listen, I just started this project, and I wonder if you’d want to work on it, if it could be good for you to deal with everything. He was really happy to do it. And because he is a very skilled, very talented filmmaker himself, I asked if he could learn how I work and be the sound recordist. You see I can't work with sound people because they're not fast enough [for my style of filmmaking]. But he adapted very fast. I need a sound recordist who is completely connected to me, the way I am connected to the characters—reacting but not disturbing, not getting too close. We formed a great team. But most of the time I was alone—like with the minister, for example, it was so outrageous that I was allowed to be there, even two people was one too many.
RS: Let’s talk about that. It’s one thing for you to be as closely aligned with the news team as you were, but then to suddenly bring us inside the ministry—how did that happen? How did you establish that trust, considering your alignment with the journalists?
AN: Right, because the investigation of the journalists regarding the disinfectants brought down the first technocrat minister. Like, in front of our eyes—we see them go from being arrogant and lying and saying that the journalists are fake and the investigation is fake and all the disinfectants are fine to, you know, running away from it all, and clear out of office. So we were wondering who would be the next minister in the type of a government that was supposed to be clean. That’s supposed to show to the people that they are not corrupt. And I heard that Vlad Voiculescu was under consideration [for the Minister of Health] and that he was a genuine philanthropist. I got his number and decided to call him and tried to get in front of him before he started his new job. For ten days he didn’t answer, but he finally did, and then he met me. And I think what got him to agree [to let me film] is that he realized the only way of not turning into another one of the bad guys is to do the one thing that is needed, all over the world, in all institutions: transparency. And I had the same view as him as a journalist. We were both well-intentioned, and after two or three days he relaxed and trusted me. And decided that he could never say, “stop the camera,” because if he said that in front of other people they would use it just to kick me out of the ministry. He was really courageous to give this access, and to show to others that I could film in there.
RS: Did he ever get paranoid about your filming with the journalists as well? Were you ever asked for insider information by either party?
AN: No, not really. In the end, he knew the journalists were doing the right thing.
RS: But they might know something before he knows, which he would understandably want to know to do his job effectively.
AN: And the journalists knew I was also filming the minister. But I thought this could be interesting for a film, to change perspective completely and go into a ministry [after investigating from the outside]. It might not work in the end, because you can’t just switch the main character in the middle of the film. But both parties knew what I was doing. And it was my professional promise to both of them to not talk about anything I see. I will never talk about what I know from the newsroom. I will never talk about what I know from the ministry. And that was a deal that nobody broke. And they both knew that I'm very persistent at being truthful to do my job. So they never tried to get to information that I had.
RS: You don’t really get into anyone’s personal lives here. You stay close to the story as it unfolds, which is also immensely rare for a film of this sort.
AN: I mean, we thought about it. In every film you need at least the journalist to sit on his couch, to drink his tea in the morning. Like what you see in Spotlight, these really short [establishing] scenes. Or in All the President's Men, you have him at home with a phone on his bed. So I thought about it. And I knew it would be a challenge to build characters without a private aspect. But I didn't want to violate the private space of the journalist—they have to have a safe area, a private life. I even talked to them about it, but in the end worried it would put a fear into them that would not be productive for doing their job. Ultimately I hope their personal human drive would be visible in the way they do their work.
RS: We know why stories are told that way, in the fiction films you mention, how we can become invested in and relate to these characters. But in a way it allows us to make this into a personal story rather than a societal one, and your film is so essentially a societal one. It's not about what makes these individual people tick, and how heroic they are—you’re rather emphasizing that greater things are at stake for everyone.
AN: Yeah, and it’s not something I foresaw, it was something that came out of the work—that they become symbols. So it's not about Cătălin Tolontan or his team. It's about the journalist. It's about the press. And with the minister it's not about this particular minister, it’s about the way we wish people who govern our lives would act. So he's also a symbol for what it’s like if a good person were in charge of our ministry. And that goes for the burned woman too, she’s a symbol.
RS: And she even knows she is.
AN: She transformed her life into a symbol. In the hospital they covered up [the victims] with a blanket, to not have to see them. And it's also what the whole power structure was trying to do, cover it up. And so she said I’ll show everybody what you do, and I will use my body to show you.
RS: It’s one of the things that documentary films can do, what the camera can do, which is catalyze the subject into realizing that you can represent something greater, and at times lesser, than yourself. You were aware that a story is being told through you in some way, and there’s an extra level of responsibility that can come from that.
AN: Yes and no. I try to bring them to a place where they don't really know what kind of a film I am making. And in terms of the relationship between fiction and documentary, for me it’s also what I would do with an actor. I would never give him directions how to act. Casting is important. If you cast the right person, then his really private personality would be the right one for the character. It’s the same in documentary filmmaking. If the casting is good, then my job is to make him relax in such a way that he’s just himself. Which is also a thing in relationships—if we trust each other, you can be yourself.
RS: I’m not really talking about performing or not, authenticity or not. Even a loving relationship, when someone loves you, you represent something extra to them. You’re aware that you represent something more because of their attention. So it doesn't necessarily mean I'm going to perform for the camera, but it does convey a certain meaning to my presence.
AN: Yeah, it’s confirmation. Like, it’s fine what I represent. It's a confirmation that gives you the courage to represent what you are.
RS: I don't think I've ever seen a better portrait of corruption than what you’ve created with this film. Layer after layer gets peeled away, arriving at a devastatingly rotten core. And it’s so detailed and local, which then winds up echoing throughout this moment we’re living through globally. Did you see that possibility in terms of thematic reach as you were filming?
AN: The film is really my very private learning process. I just wanted to understand how the press works and what the role of the press really is in a society, in the same way that I wanted to understand how a decision by those in power influences my basic private life. In the end it’s important for me not to have an answer, because I don't have it. But I think the most important thing is to reflect your own life—what are my decisions in life? Do I go with the wave? Do I help others? When I see corruption, would I risk my job to show that things are not right? My intention as a storyteller is to let the viewer put the mirror in front of himself and ask—what kind of a person am I in society? Am I contributing to the community that I'm living in or do I just not care? What the best cinema should do is [to ask us to] identify with characters. And I think in documentaries it's more powerful because if it works, the viewer identifies with the characters, doesn’t judge them, and compares [what he sees] to his own attitudes in life, to his own personality. Why do I go and vote, or don't go and vote? How do I see information coming in? Am I able to identify a political speech that carries wrong intentions? It's the most important thing to open more doors of perception in the viewer.
But to answer your question, there’s something going on right now, all over the world. We all feel we're all together in this. We don't really know anymore how societies function. We don't really trust that those in power are really governing in our interests. We are really polarized, either black or white. Having screened the film all over the world, I have the feeling that we all see a tsunami coming, and we don’t know what to do. Everybody is just clueless about what will happen in one week’s time. We feel like we are sitting on a bomb in a world that is governed more and more by populists. And we just don’t know when it will go off. We don't trust our co-citizens anymore and how they will vote, what they will do. Will it suddenly implode and we will start killing each other? I felt that [while filming] without really being aware of it. The film triggers right now this feeling of—how can we correct it, what is our society?
RS: I can absolutely see how it's resonant everywhere, which is remarkable considering the locality of the film.
AN: When we started shooting, it was a completely different world than when we stopped. It was the beginning of 2016, when everywhere started to switch to populism. You had Brexit; you had Trump. In Romania we had populists for a long time, but then there was Brazil, Turkey, everywhere. We filmed screens in the newsroom where Trump's campaign was on the screen, and Brexit was on the screen, and I thought at the time, oh, that’s a good moment. But I decided not to keep them in [the film], because it felt like we were pointing to something. It imposes something on the viewer. But the viewer carries it inside himself anyway. I think it should be the liberty of the viewer to decide for himself which side he is on in his own life. It’s not about one political party or the other; it’s about which side are you on as a human being in a society, placing with your life next to other lives.
RS: Not only do most other documentaries leave that in the film, they’ll digitally insert something even more obvious onto that screen.
AN: It is artificial.
RS: It’s almost as if, instead of pointing to the monster, you're letting us realize the monster is behind us.
AN: Or inside of us.